Horror Then and Now

My longtime readers know that I indulge myself in the run-up to Halloween with book and movie reviews that concur with my preferences for that holiday.  A couple of years ago I wrote reviews for all the Universal Classic Monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  I usually take the season as an excuse to reread Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and watch the movie for good measure.

But last year I reviewed Psycho and this year I intend to review the Thomas Harris novels that include the character Hannibal Lecter.  Many years ago, a friend gave me his copy of Red Dragon and I found it to be one of the most unsettling things I had ever read.  And although the violence and insanity were pretty extreme by the standards of that happier time, the thing about the book that truly frightened me was the plausibility of the killer’s method for stalking his victims and the impossibility of protecting your family from someone who was determined to kill in that fashion.  I guess it was the fact that I had a young family at that time and the idea that I might be powerless to save them that horrified me.  And that is when I first became aware that true horror always has a human face.  It won’t be a normal human but it will look out of a face that is attached to a driver’s license and a cellphone and a bank account.

So, there is a difference between the good old days and the bad new days.  We stopped trying to gently scare children and now we horrify adults by showing them what’s really out there.  I’ll be the first to admit that watching Frankenstein or Dracula doesn’t actually involve any fear for anyone over the age of ten.  It was natural that movie makers and writers would escalate the violence and cart out the gore to tempt adult thrill-seekers, mostly in their teenage years, to spend their entertainment dollars on the latest fright fest.  Back in the 1970s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the poster child for exploitation movies aimed at frightening audiences out of their seats.  Since then every year has upped the ante until lately the content has gotten so bad that the real name for what this represents has been designated.  These movies are portraying torture through grisly dismemberment.

I consider that a distinction can be made between these gore fests that are almost bereft of meaningful characters and plot and crime drama like “Silence of the Lambs” which while it does include the description of horrible violence and depravity is not focused on flinging gore across the screen to delight the demented.  It tells the story of people.  This includes the victims, the police and even the murderer.  We supposedly learn a little about what drives some of these characters to become monsters.

I’m not a devotee of crime drama or fiction.  As I said I was given the Red Dragon book long ago and because of it I went to see the Silence of the Lambs when it came out.  Out of a sense of curiosity I read the rest of the Lecter books and saw the movies and tv series.  I don’t think the later books were as good as the first two but I will review them all for general interest purposes.

But I have all the Universal Monster movies on DVD and I intend to watch them all with my younger grandsons as soon as the lockdown ends.  They’re the correct age and they’ll get a kick out of them.  And truth be told, so will I.

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